Making a Difference with Holistic Mentoring

Talk Less, Listen More.

Making a Difference with Holistic Mentoring
Steven Moffitt
August 1, 2023

Anyone who has spent time with the Severn Leadership Group knows that mentoring is the linchpin of the Fellows Program.  Mentoring underwrites everything that is done in pursuit of developing courageous leaders of character who make a difference in their teams and communities. Every SLG Fellow is paired with an experienced mentor, who has undergone a robust training program that – coupled with the mentor’s accumulated wisdom – equips him or her to walk alongside their mentee (SLG Fellow).

There is an important distinction however between the traditional mentoring that most leaders are familiar with, and SLG’s “holistic mentoring.” What makes holistic mentoring different, and why is it so crucial to achieving SLG’s mission to develop virtuous leaders and teams to be agents of transformational change?

We’re Primed to Resist Advice

Thinking back to one’s own experiences with a traditional mentor, advice is given but often not followed by the mentee. What prevents one from heeding their mentor’s wisdom?

Traditional mentoring typically involves a more-experienced senior passing down his or her knowledge to a younger, less-experienced mentee or protégé. It’s as though a mentor is “downloading” their knowledge to the mentee. Traditional mentoring relationships can be valuable; but there is often an unseen limitation to them lurking just below the surface.

Put simply, another person’s advice, regardless of how good it may be, must overcome a small, but powerful part of our brain that is designed to protect us. Our brains have evolved to sense danger, and until proven otherwise (i.e. trust is built), everything in our environment is assumed to be a threat, including being told what we should do. This “amygdala hijack” (a symptom of the brain’s fight-or-flight response) may have helped us outrun saber-tooth tigers fifty-thousand years ago, but it doesn’t do us many favors today when trying to absorb the wisdom of a mentor.

Making Mentoring Holistic

So what makes SLG’s holistic mentoring different from traditional mentoring? For starters, holistic mentors take themselves out of the driver’s seat, and consider their mentees to be more of a partner or friend than a beneficiary of their wisdom. Holistic mentors give less advice and ask more questions, encouraging their mentees to think deeply to generate insights not from the outside in, but from the inside out. The importance of this self-discovery cannot be understated, as it enables mentees to wholeheartedly own the solution and path forward. There is no fight or flight response to deal with. After all, an idea cannot be an outside threat if it is generated from within!

In many ways, holistic mentoring draws more from leadership coaching than it does from traditional mentoring. Considering that many mentees have wrestled with ideas and solutions around the challenges they face, instead of giving them the answer, a mentee is supported as they come to their own solution. Instead of downloading wisdom, a mentee can upload their own wisdom, as the mentor provides a space for them to explore their deepest thoughts and ideas.

For mentors looking to refine their skills and further enhance their impact, below are a few quick, easy, and practical methods to make their own conversations more holistic:

·   Avoid Closed-Ended Questions. Closed-ended questions don’t typically demand any deep or critical thinking; they let us casually skim the surface of our minds and rarely result in meaningful or novel insights. Consider the simple difference between “could you have done that differently?” and “what could you do differently?” A small nuance, but one question is likely to result in a brief dialogue, while the other demands more reflection and critical thinking. 

·   Embrace the Power of Silence. Often as mentors we get in our own way, interrupting a partner’s thinking process by injecting another question or doing anything to break the uncomfortable silence. This silence though is where the real magic happens. Asking powerful, open-ended questions – the kinds of questions that our partner doesn’t know the answer to – require time to bring new ideas out of the shadows and into the light of consciousness. Long periods of silence are the key ingredient to generate the insight and discovery that holistic mentoring offers. As a rule of thumb, wait at least six seconds (often more) between questions. 

·   Talk Less, Listen More. In a traditional mentoring relationship, it’s not uncommon for the mentor to do most of the talking. The mentee spends the majority of his or her time in “receive mode,” absorbing the wisdom and guidance being passed down by the mentor. With holistic mentoring, that dynamic is flipped completely. A holistic mentor’s primary role is to ask difficult, probing, powerful questions that encourage their mentee to think critically and generate insights from the inside-out. Unlike  traditional mentoring, the burden of discovery and knowledge rests not with the holistic mentor, but with the mentee. Because the mentee does most of the talking, a holistic mentor must be a great listener. Deep listening is a rare skill that is increasingly absent in most professional conversations today. 

·   Avoid Questions that Start with “Why.” Any fan of Simon Sinek will no doubt wince at this tip. Getting to the “why” of a problem or issue is often the most critical element and may be the only way to find a meaningful solution. Don’t throw out Sinek’s books just yet though. The idea here is not that we should ignore the underlying reasons and “whys” in our mentoring, but that the simple word “why” can be problematic. It again has to do with how our brains are wired. The fight or flight response of our brains is particularly sensitive to hearing “why,” and is liable to get triggered subconsciously when it is uttered our way. Consider how these two questions land:

“Why are you having such a hard time with this project?” 

“What about this project is most difficult for you?”

As holistic mentors, we should not avoid the whys in our mentoring, but might consider simply rewording our questions to include more “whats” or “hows” instead of “whys.”

Rounding Out the Edges

At the end of the day, holistic mentoring is all about giving our mentees the opportunity to engage in self-discovery and fully own their insights; to empower them to give advice to themselves. Providing the space to accomplish this demands that we stay curious. For the holistic mentor, curiosity is the currency of the land, and is truly what distinguishes holistic from traditional mentoring.

As simple as the tips above may sound, I have often found them challenging to practice. During my two decades in the Navy, many of the stronger habits I’ve developed fall within the traditional mentoring realm. Giving advice and downloading wisdom were behaviors I was expected to perform as I “trained my replacements.” But developing courageous leaders and difference makers demands a more complete or holistic approach. If you’re like me, holistic mentoring will likely involve changing some habits and will naturally demand a large measure of practice. The juice, as they say, is well worth the squeeze. Holistic mentoring opens new doors and possibilities that no other kind of conversation can. Those who experience it, on either side of the relationship, almost inevitably come to the same conclusion I did, and only wish that they had known about these skills much earlier in life.

Steve Moffitt is a 2014 SLG Alumnus and recently returned to Annapolis to serve as a Permanent Military Instructor of Leadership at the Naval Academy. He is pursuing certification as an SLG Mentor while also working towards accreditation as an Associate Certified Coach with the International Coaching Federation (ICF).

Making a Difference with Holistic Mentoring

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